A trip to the wine merchant is one of life's most enjoyable chores – up to the moment of discovery that stunning Chablis you bought last month for 20 francs now costs 5 francs more.
Short of drinking less wine or buying in bulk, unwise unless you know something about the many problems of bottling and are prepared to run the risk of spoiling a barrelful of wine, the only practical solution to rising costs is looking for cheaper wines for day-to-day drinking and buying only a few bottles of expensive favorites for special occasions.
This serves a double purpose – you save money and if enough people follow this system the price of the greats might just go down.
The difficulty lies in finding a reasonably priced yet similar wine with which to replace the expensive one. Fortunately, many wines do, in fact, have cousins that can easily pass for the original at a far lower price.
This applies basically only to regional appellations. There is no way at any price you can replace a Latour or a Lafite from a good year.
Even a good unclassified growth of the Médoc (15 to 30 francs) can be an expensive proposition. If you hunt around in the relatively unknown and hence inexpensive Côtes de Bourg, however, you may come up with some surprisingly good wines. Served from a carafe they will readily be taken for Médoc – and good Médoc – by your friends.
Much the same is true for Pomerol. Néac, Lalande de Pomerol and even Côtes de Canon-Fronsac resemble Pomerol, sometimes enough to be taken for the real thing, and always at a considerable saving.
A less expensive replacement for Saint-Emilion can easily be found among the outlying regions: Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion, Parsac-Saint-Emilion and Sables-Saint-Emilion.
Many areas in the Loire Valley and elsewhere are now producing extraordinarily fine, smoky, dry wines from the Sauvignon grape, the same variety that makes well-known Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé at about 15 francs – two and three times the price. In many cases, the Sauvignon can even be superior to the more famous appellations.
The same thing is true of the Chardonnay grape. At Chablis it produces a delightfully crisp and steely wine but for a third the price a Chardonnay from the Haut-Poitou can be nearly as satisfying.
Pouilly-Fuissé (about 20 francs), another justly famous white Burgundy produced in very limited quantities, is surrounded by some very fine similar Mâcons, especially the Mâcon-Villages such as Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Lugny, again at half the price.
A substitute for other Burgundy whites such as Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and the like is Aligoté (25 francs), a wine made from the grape of the same name. Most growers of the famous whites have a few Aligoté vines and the resulting wine often carries a distinct taste of the soil where it is grown.
There is no truly satisfactory substitute for the great reds of Burgundy, made from the Pinot Noir grape, except perhaps excess, declassified production from famous growths, in which case it is the same wine. A Bourgogne Passe-Tous-Grains (two thirds made from Gamay grapes, one third from Pinot Noir) is not really good enough to stand in for a pure Pinot Noir from Volnay, Nuits-Saint-Georges or Corton (minimum 30 francs).
However, for Beaujolais, some of whose better growths can go for upwards of 15 francs, there are cheaper substitutes. The Gamay grape that goes into Beaujolais does very well under its own name in the Loire Valley, at half, or less, the price. Another attractive replacement is the new appellation contrôlée Côtes du Ventoux from the Rhône, not a Gamay but nonetheless light, fresh and fruity.
In the Rhône Valley a good Lirac (about 10 francs) can often stand up to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape just as a fine Crozes-Hermitages, Cornas or Saint-Joseph can often substitute for more famous Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, with savings of 50 to 200 percent.
There are also many inexpensive sparkling wines from nearly every region of France, but if you drink champagne every day you can afford it, and if you drink it only on special occasions you can also afford the real thing. This will no doubt infuriate producers of sparkling Burgundy, Saumur, Vouvray, Gaillac and the like, all perfectly decent wines, but you have to draw the line somewhere.